Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
The great German/Latin Christmas carol In Dulci Jubilo (known in English translation as Good Christian Friends, rejoice) ends with a prayer: “O that we were there!”
The desire expressed is that we, the worshippers, might have been present at the cradle, at the inn in Bethlehem, at Jesus’ birth.
What would we have seen?
An overcrowded town, stretched to capacity and beyond with visitors from far and wide. Some of them would have come in great style, with plenty of money to spend on the best accommodations, the choicest food and drink. Many would be staying with relatives or friends, who were in turn obligated to show the best hospitality possible, even to their own detriment. And then there were those who were there only by extraordinary stress and cost to themselves, but they had to be there nonetheless. From far and near they came, and filled every available place and space that was to be had.
To me it sounds like Augusta, Georgia, during Masters’ Week.
Overfilled, overwrought, stressed out, full up, no room for anything, or anyone, else.
Least of all for a young, poor, unmarried couple with a baby about to be born.
And yet someone—some innkeeper or stable hand, some homeowner who had a few critters under a shed in the back yard—saw more than “yet another stranger in trouble.” Someone looked a little bit closer, and saw something unusual, something just a little bit odd, and made room. Found room, after all.
And so the birth we remember tonight took place in a barn. With barn critters in attendance, animals that moo-ed and baa-ed and snorted, that chewed their feed out of the feeding trough (which we call the manger) and stamped their hooves (or paws, or whatever) and made the barn smell—like a barn. The smell that night was not that of pine boughs and incense, nor of cinnamon and peppermint and gingerbread.
Those who saw and heard and smelled all that was there were not the well-to-do citizens or visitors to the town. All of them were safely tucked away at the Bethlehem Hyatt. Only those who passed by and perhaps heard the sound of a baby’s first shouts might have known that something was up. It was, I suspect, anything but a “Silent Night.”
The shepherds were not expecting an invitation into town that night. They were hardly prepared for a social gathering. They had been living outdoors, camping in the fields for weeks or months at a time. They likely smelled very much like the sheep themselves.
No matter, said the angel, never mind about that. This news of great joy, for all people, is shown to you first of all.
Go, and see!
This child, whose life will turn the world upside down, has arrived in the world.
Go, and see!
You’ll recognize the family when you find a baby wrapped tightly, asleep (if Mary and Joseph are very lucky) laying in the animal’s feeding trough of the barn.
Go, and see for yourselves!
So they go, looking for something, someone—they hardly know what or why—and find him. Find them, gathered there, exhausted from the journey and the birth process. The barn wasn’t crowded enough already, we’ve got to bring in a flock of sheep besides? Was there really room for them too?
All during the season of Advent we’ve been thinking about “making room”. In our lives—as busy and overscheduled and stressed as we may be; in our hearts—as distracted and pulled apart as they may be; in the midst of the overcrowded, untidy, malodorous barns of our daily lives. And prepared or unprepared, ready or not, here we are. And here he is.
There were plenty of people in Bethlehem that night, who might have heard or seen something.
Perhaps they were busy. Distracted by other, more urgent, matters.
Only shepherds, half-awake in the night, were quiet enough for the angels to get their attention.
If the story of Jesus’ birth means anything at all, thousands of years later and a world away, it is this: God’s love comes into the midst of the mess. Our mess. All of it. God’s love for the world reveals itself in the midst of the mess. Our mess. All of it.
In a completely inappropriate location,
accompanied by smells and sounds and sights that,
we’d rather not smell or hear or see.
As a tiny, helpless being, who is vulnerable and easily overlooked
Surrounded by people who are not themselves fully aware of what’s happening.
Not right at the moment anyway.
And so, in this Christmas season, lest we miss the message ourselves:
with the innkeeper, the stable hand,
we look carefully at the ones right in front of us;
we hear and heed the angel’s message even where we are sure it can’t possibly be on the play list; with the shepherds, we come seeking the Christ, God’s beloved and chosen one,
in the face of every person we meet.
Because, in a way, as the carol prays, we are there. Tonight and always.
And better still, He is here. Emmanu-el. God with us. Tonight, and tomorrow, and always.